The common chuckwalla (Sauromalus ater) is native to Nevada, California, Arizona, Utah, and Mexico. They are found in rocky desert habitats, such as rocky hillsides, canyons, and washes. They usually sleep in rock cracks or beneath large rocks, coming out each morning to bask and forage for food. They mainly eat vegetation and have been observed climbing trees and shrubs to eat flowers or seed pods. Flowers are especially relished. When threatened, a chuckwalla will quickly retreat to a rock crevice, and inflate its’ body. This makes removal nearly impossible. They are usually quite alert lizards, even seemingly inquisitive. Although wild caught chuckwallas can be difficult to acclimate to captivity, captive bred animals are quite easy to keep, as long as their basic needs are consistently met. Below are the practices that we follow and recommend as they have worked well for us.
Average Adult Size: 12"- 18" total length (Granites tend to be the ones on the lagrer end of this range)
Life Expectancy: 15+ years with many living well into their 20s
Handleability: Chuckwallas can become tame, even personable, pets with some work. Each lizard will have their own personality, and some will require more work than others on taming. If you start with a captive bred baby and handle it briefly a couple times a week, as well as offer some food by hand trust will be gained. It should be noted that bringing your Chuckwallas outdoors should be done with much caution. Many lizards, even captive bred ones, will act very wild and flighty when brought into natural sunlight.
Since chuckwallas are active lizards, they require spacious cages. For 1 adult chuckwalla, we recommend a cage with at least 4.5 square feet of floor space. If using a glass aquarium, the minimum size for 1 adult is a 40 gallon breeder (36" x 18") though larger is ideal. A pair of adults can be housed in a 75gallon aquarium (48" x 18") again larger being better if you can provide it. Adult males are territorial, so only one per cage is recommended. Most babies may be raised in a small group, but pay close attention them to ensure that all are eating well and growing at close to the same rate. Animals should be removed from the group if they are overly aggressive or overly passive. An overly aggressive baby may pick on others in its cage, and quickly become the biggest animal in the cage. An overly passive animal may be intimidated by all other animals in the cage, and will not thrive in a group setting. The minimum size we would recommend for 1 or 2 babies is a 20 gallon long (12" x 30"). If such an aquarium is selected, keep in mind that the babies will likely outgrow this small cage in a short few months. We use Vision cages (4’ x 28” x 18”), Showcase cages (60” x 24” x 24”) and Laguna Pond Tubs (51” x 31” x 18”) to house our adults. We have also used Rubbermaid livestock watering troughs ranging in size from 90-300 gallons. Chuckwallas are active lizards and thrive in larger cages. The more space you can give them, the better. We do not recommend letting them roam free in the house or yard, as they can easily escape or find a way to get into trouble.
There are currently 2 substrates that we use in our cages; chopped straw/ timothy hay and play sand. With either option we use a thin layer evenly along the bottom of the cage. We do not recommend calcium and / or vitamin sand. The chopped straw is a good option because it is light weight and more easily disposed of as compared to sand. Our nesting areas/ humid hides have sand in them to help hold humidity. During the first year, we keep baby Chuckwallas on timothy hay substrate or kraft paper. After that if you want to switch to sand they can be. The substrate should be spot cleaned every day if possible, removing any feces, urates, and uneaten food.
Rocks make the best basking sites and hiding spots. We use and recommend rocks, bricks and stacked tile tables as basking sites and hides for chuckwalla cages. The basking rock(s) can be a large rock, or a stack of tile tables, as long as it is a stable elevated spot. Flat sandstone, flagstone or tiles can be used when making “tables”. We use aquarium silicone to adhere supports to each corner, so that each piece is like a little table. These "tables" are then stacked one on top of each other. This will give the chuckwallas their preferred hide spots; rock cracks. The supports do not need to be more than 1- 1.5 inches long, at the longest. Using aquarium silicone will reduce the risk of a lizard being crushed by a rock which has shifted off of its legs. Also, any rock placed in the tank should be placed directly on the cage bottom, so that lizards will not be able to dig under them. Chuckwallas can be also crushed this way.
Since chuckwallas are diurnal (active during the day), lighting is extremely important. We put our lights on electric timers, and give the lizards about 10 to 12 hours of light each day. We use halogen flood bulbs for heat lights on our cages. These should be placed above the basking rock and aimed at the highest point of the rock, if possible. Basking temperatures in our cages range from 110 degrees (F) to about 130 degrees (F) on the basking surface. Babies should have a basking site on the cooler end of this range. We have observed wild chuckwallas basking when the rock temperatures are in excess of 120 degrees (F). The cooler end of the cage should be in the mid 80s (F). Without adequate heat, the lizards will not be able to properly digest their food. If basking temperatures are too high, the lizards can get thermal burns. We use UVB lights on all of our cages. We use high output (HO) T-5 fluorescent 10-12% UVB bulbs (Zoo Med or Arcadia brand) on all of our cages. These bulbs are high intensity, and must be used with caution. It is highly recommended to consult the manufacturer’s recommendations and use a UVB meter to determine the safe mounting distance for each light. The high UVB output of these HO T-5 lights decreases the demand for additional vitamin D3 supplementation. We usually use a "daylight" compact fluorescent bulbs when additional ambient light is needed in the cage.
Chuckwallas are mainly herbivores, though they may eat some insects occasionally. In the wild they eat every day, so in captivity fresh food should also be made available every day. Our chuckwalla diet is composed mainly of dark leafy greens. Here is a list of the various greens and such that we offer our animals.
Escarole Lettuce Curly Endive Lettuce
Romaine Lettuce (occasional) Collard Greens
Green & Red Leaf Lettuces (occasional) Dandelion Greens
Arugula Bok Choy (occasional)
Curly Kale Purple Kale
Lacinato Kale Radicchio
Chard (occasional) Mustard Greens (occasional)
Parsley (occasional) Cilantro (occasional)
Wheat Grass Sunflower Sprouts (occasional)
Alfalfa sprouts (occasional) Fresh Alfalfa (occasional)
Red Clover (occasional) Yellow Sweet Clover (occasional)
Butternut Squash Spaghetti Squash
Acorn Squash Zucchini
Crook neck Squash Carrots
Parsnips Petite Peas
Chopped Green beans Radishes
Various Berries (Sparingly) Edible Flowers
Extras offered a couple times a week:
Bee Pollen granules Split or sprouted Red & Green Lentils
Repcal Juvenile Iguana Diet Mazuri LS Tortoise Chow –small pellets-
We have tried other types of tortoise chow, and it is our belief that some of the more processed pellets cause the lizards to get oral abscesses. The processed wheat or corn gives these pellets a texture similar to breakfast cereal. These types of pellets should be avoided. When this type of pellet comes into contact with moisture, it becomes a thick paste. We believe that once eaten, residual amounts of the paste remain in the lizard’s mouth, like the area between the jaw and the lip. This creates a media for harmful bacteria to thrive, thus creating an abscess.
A good calcium powder with vitamin D3 is a must for indoor chuckwallas. Without direct contact to unfiltered natural sunlight for most of the day, Chuckwallas do not absorb enough calcium from their food. This can lead to one of the most common ailments for captive lizards; Metabolic Bone Disease. When lizards don’t get enough calcium, their bones start to degrade. This can cause loss of appetite, lethargy, debilitation, and death. Usually by the time symptoms appear, the condition has advanced to a point where the lizard will suffer some permanent damage, if it even survives. As the saying goes’ "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". This is why it is important to add calcium to their food daily. We use and strongly recommend Sticky Tongue Farms brand Miner-All indoor and outdoor formulas. We also use and recommend Herptivite Multivitamins which we sprinkle on their salad 1 day a week. The other days of the week we sprinkle the calcium supplement on their salad. 2- 3 times a week we will use the calcium containing vitamin D3 and the other remaining days we use calcium without D3.
Babies get the same leafy greens as the adults, but they are chopped up into much finer pieces. To reduce the risk of impaction, babies don’t get the other veggies and pellets until they are at least 5-6 months old, then they are gradually added to the diet. Most of the water adult chuckwallas need is received from eating their fresh greens. Although, we do spray the salad with some water once plated a couple times a week. A small shallow water dish can also be used. Babies have a higher need for additional water, and should have water dripped onto their salad plate or a flat rock in their cage once a day. It is important to ensure that the cage substrate does not become damp for extended periods of time. This can lead to a buildup of fungus or harmful bacteria in the cage. So don’t drip excessive amounts of water into the cage.
Captive bred chuckwallas make excellent pets. With handling, most can become very tame. They are quite hardy lizards, as long as their basic requirements are met. Under the proper conditions, chuckwallas can live well into their teens or even 20s. As with all reptiles, it is best for beginners to start out with captive bred animals.